Politics & Government

Clinton's foreign experience is more limited than she says

Barack Obama stumps Tuesday in Greenville, Miss. He crushed Hillary Clinton in the state's Democratic primary.
Barack Obama stumps Tuesday in Greenville, Miss. He crushed Hillary Clinton in the state's Democratic primary. Alex Brandon / AP

WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Clinton claims that her experience in dealing with foreign affairs qualifies her to handle a crisis call at 3 a.m. and be commander in chief.

Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign accuses Clinton of exaggerating her foreign affairs experience. It says that nothing in her background shows that she's more prepared to handle an international crisis than he is.

No question is more central just now to their rivalry for the Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton has said that Obama hasn't passed the "commander-in-chief test," but that both she and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain have.

To bolster the claim, she's trumpeted her role as first lady in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, helping to open Macedonia's borders to Kosovo refugees and challenging China on women's rights, all as proof that she has what it takes to manage a foreign crisis.

Yet while it's impossible to know how much she conferred privately about such matters with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, when he was in power, public records and interviews with former Clinton administration officials and others strongly suggest that Clinton overstates her role.

Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, and Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton's national security adviser, both said that Hillary Clinton wasn't privy to the president's daily intelligence brief, nor did she sit in on National Security Council meetings.

It's unclear whether Clinton had a national security clearance when she was first lady. Several former top-level Clinton White House officials couldn't recall, and a Clinton campaign spokesman didn't respond when asked on Tuesday.

On the stump, Clinton takes credit for helping to bring peace between warring Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. George Mitchell, the former Maine senator who helped negotiate the peace agreements, has said that Clinton's visits to the region and meetings with female activists there were "very helpful" in the peace efforts.

But one of the key Irish negotiators last week called Clinton's description of her role in the process a "wee bit silly."

"I don't know there was much she did apart from accompanying Bill (Clinton) going around," David Trimble told Belfast's Daily Telegraph.

Trimble, the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and John Hume, leader of the nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party, shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for their roles in the peace process. "I don't want to rain on the thing for her, but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player," Trimble said.

Melanne Verveer, who served as Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, disputed Trimble. She said that Clinton was advising women in Northern Ireland who were working on the peace process at the grassroots level and struggling to get their voices heard.

"A peace process, in my mind, goes beyond actual negotiation," Verveer said. "She (Clinton) was supportive of the women."

Clinton also claims that she was a difference-maker in the Balkans. She said that she negotiated opening Macedonia's borders in 1999 to let in refugees fleeing violence in Kosovo.

Macedonia had closed its borders, but it reopened them the day before Clinton arrived. Still, Clinton met with Macedonia's president and prime minister and "pleaded very strenuously and very aggressively" to keep the borders open, Berger said.

Berger said that Clinton's meeting with Macedonian leaders and Albanian refugee camps helped the refugee traffic flow through the borders "much more robustly."

But some officials who were working on the Balkans challenge Clinton's impact.

Ivo Daalder, a former NSC official under President Clinton who was responsible for the Balkans, said that "there's the inconvenient fact that the agreement to open the borders happened the day before she got there."

"I have no doubt that the diplomats used the prospect of her visiting Macedonia to open the Macedonian borders. The question is, was she instrumental in negotiating the opening of the borders to all tens of thousands of refugees to pass? The answer is no," said Daalder, author of "Winning Ugly: NATO's War to save Kosovo." He supports Obama.

On the stump, Clinton also touts her visits to war zones. She describes a harrowing flight into Bosnia, where her plane had to make a corkscrew landing to avoid enemy fire.

The comedian Sinbad, who accompanied Clinton on the Bosnia trip along with singer Sheryl Crow, disputed Clinton's description of the danger.

"I think the only 'red phone' moment was: Do we eat here or at the next place?" Sinbad told The Washington Post on Monday. "I never felt being in a sense of peril, or 'Oh, God, I hope I'm going to be OK when I get out of this helicopter or when I get out of his tank." Sinbad supports Obama.

Clinton's supporters also tout her 1995 speech in Beijing as perhaps her most visible foreign policy success. Resisting calls by some within the Clinton administration that she not go, Hillary Clinton attended the Fourth World Conference on Women. There she declared: "It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights."

The speech was the then-strongest criticism of China by a Clinton administration official. It drew cheers from the women's movement and human-rights communities.

Obama's campaign credits it as "a good speech," but nevertheless contends that it hardly constituted a "3 a.m. crisis."

"It is strange that Senator Clinton would base her own foreign policy experience on a speech that she gave over a decade ago, since she so frequently belittles Barack Obama's speech opposing the Iraq war six years ago," wrote Greg Craig, a former State Department policy planning director, in a Tuesday Obama campaign memo.

Clinton's supporters say her role as first lady — including being present as her husband handled foreign crises — gave her insight and experience that help qualify her to be president.

"She was the first lady and, in my mind, that's an ambassador at-large," said P. J. Crowley, who was NSC spokesman in the Clinton White House. "People (overseas) would tell her things, she'd come back and brief the president and the Cabinet.

"She wasn't George Mitchell, she wasn't Richard Holbrooke," said Crowley, referring to Clinton administration diplomats who helped forge peace agreements in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. "She traveled the world, and the world responded to her. Much of this was informal, admittedly enough, but based on her experience in the '90s and being in the Senate, she does have a world view."

Summed up Myra Gutin, a communications professor at New Jersey's Rider University and author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century": "She had the proximity to power, but she wasn't the one who made policy — she didn't have the accountability."

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